Thursday, May 30, 2013
Daniel Nava became a bit of a Boston folk hero on June 12, 2010 when he became only the fourth player in Major League Baseball history to hit a grand slam in his first major league at bat and just the second to do it on the first pitch.
But despite his auspicious start, and the historic blast, Nava was sent back to Triple-A just 10 days later.
He was recalled to Boston on August 2 to replace Mike Cameron (who had been placed on the DL), but was optioned just two days later to make room for Jacoby Ellsbury. Nave was recalled once more on August 17, after Ellsbury re-injured his ribs.
However, despite these repeated trips to the big leagues, Nava never played a game for the Red Sox the following year. He was designated for assignment and removed from the Red Sox 40-man roster on May 20, 2011.
After passing through waivers unclaimed (none of the other 29 major league teams wanted him), Nava was out-righted back to the Pawtucket Red Sox.
It was just another bump in road (one of many, really) over the course of Nava's baseball career. Through it all, he never lost hope or a belief in himself, saying, "Quitting’s just not much of an option for me."
Nava's steely resolve was forged by overcoming long odds and countless doubters at every step of the way.
When Nava graduated from high school in Mountain View, California, he was just 5' 5" and 150 pounds. He may have been the only person who didn't see that as a limitation.
He tried to make the Santa Clara University baseball team as a walk-on, but failed. So he became the team's equipment manager instead.
However, Nava had to leave Santa Clara after two years because he could no longer afford the tuition. So, he then enrolled at a junior college, the College of San Mateo, where he not only made the baseball team but became a Junior College All-American.
Given his performance, Santa Clara wanted Nava back and offered him a full scholarship.
Nava went on to hit .395 with a .494 on-base percentage in his lone season with Santa Clara. Both were tops in the West Coast Conference and earned him first-team All-WCC honors.
Yet, Nava went undrafted after college and eventually signed with the Chico Outlaws of the Golden Baseball League. However, he was cut after his tryout.
Undaunted, Nava made the team the following year (2007) and went on to hit 12 home runs for the Outlaws, with a .371 batting average and a 1.100 OPS. As a result, Nava was named the top independent league prospect by Baseball America that year.
The Red Sox' assistant director of pro scouting, Jared Porter, recommended that the Sox sign Nava from the Outlaws in 2007 and the Sox ultimately paid them just $1 for the rights to Nava.
The young outfielder worked his way through the Sox minor league system, posting excellent OPS numbers and strikeout-to-walk ratios at every step of the way.
After getting designated by the Sox in 2011 and then going unclaimed by any other team, it looked as if Nava's big league aspirations would be unfulfilled. To make matters worse, Nava wasn't even invited to major league training camp in 2012.
However, due to early-season injuries to Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury, Nava was soon called up by the Red Sox again. He had gone 188 at-bats since his debut grand slam, when on May 14, 2012 he smashed a two-run homer at Femway. Through it all, Nava's belief in himself had never waivered.
For a guy who faced physical limitations from the beginning, and who was deemed inadequate by so many, Nava's accomplishments this year are striking. And for him, they must be quite rewarding.
This season, Nava is batting .288/.393/.474/.867. Among Red Sox players, he is fourth in batting (third among regulars), fourth in on-base percentage (third among regulars), fourth in slugging (third among regulars), and fourth in OPS (second among regulars).
Nava is fourth on the team with seven homers (three players are tied with eight) and third with 33 RBI. With exactly one-third of the season played, Nava is on pace for 21 homers and 99 RBI.
Not bad for a guy who couldn't make the Santa Clara University baseball team, who went undrafted, who was cut by an Independent League team, who was DFA'd by the Red Sox and who went unclaimed on waivers by any other club.
Daniel Nava is easy to root for. He is the classic overachiever, a guy who succeeds against all odds. He is a lesson in perseverance and of belief in one's self.
If Nava's baseball career had ended after that June 12, 2010 grand slam, it would have made for a great story. At that point, he was a guy who had already beaten the odds and exceeded the estimations of countless baseball scouts and coaches.
But that wasn't enough for Nava. He had bigger dreams, greater aspirations and higher expectations. Who knows where he can go from here?
While anything more would merely seem like icing on the cake, Nava has already proven himself to be more than just a serviceable backup or fourth outfielder. He is a legitimate major league outfielder, starting for a contending team in the AL East.
And that is a really fantastic story. You just can't script this stuff.
Sunday, March 24, 2013
It's only pre-season, so the numbers don't count. Whether they're good or bad, for a variety of reasons, pre-season stats are typically an inaccurate predictor of regular season results.
That said, counting all games this spring — Grapefruit League, WBC and Team USA exhibitions — Shane Victorino is 7 of 45 (.155).
There were numerous reports during the winter that Victorino's bat sped had slowed considerably, and his numbers have indeed been on a downward trend in recent years. The decline in Victorino's batting average is particularly troubling.
Victorino became an everyday player in 2006. From 2006 - 2009, he batted .288; but over the last three seasons he batted just .264. That downward spiral is worrisome.
Additionally, Victorino hit just .229 against right-handed pitching in 2012, compared to .323 vs. lefties. His struggles got so bad that he actually spent two games hitting right against right-handed pitching.
Victorino is certainly an accomplished player — a three-time Gold Glove winner, a two-time All-Star, and a one-time world champion. And his foot speed is still an asset; Victorino has stolen at least 30 bases in four of the last six years, including 39 last season. He is also considered an excellent fielder.
However, there is legitimate concern that his best days are now behind him. ESPN's Keith Law, noted Victorino's declining bat speed and suggested that he might be best suited as a fourth outfielder. Law ranked Victorino 29th among all free agents last winer, behind players such as Ichiro, Lance Berkman, Ryan Ludwick, and Kevin Youkilis.
The fact that Law ranked Victorino behind Youkilis is telling since Youkilis, like the new Sox right fielder, has also batted just .264 over the last three seasons. The Sox lost so much confidence in the fading Youkilis that they traded him last season. The club wanted no part of the free agent third baseman this winter, feeling that his skills had eroded considerably.
If you're not worried yet, consider this: Victorino's OPS last year was nearly 100 points lower than Mike Cameron's the season before his ill-fated union with the Red Sox. From a purely statistical standpoint, the Red Sox $39 million commitment to Victorino seems dubious.
At the time of Victorino's signing with the Red Sox, one American League GM said, Victorino “should have been in the $7 million-$11 million range. What they paid him is ridiculous.”
However, Victorino didn't cost the Red Sox a draft pick; he was ineligible for a one-year qualifying offer from the Dodgers because he was traded by the Phillies mid-year.
In fact, the Sox didn't sacrifice any draft picks singing free agents this offseason (or any significant prospects in trades), which will likely be of great benefit to them down the line.
To be sure, there does appear to be some upside to this signing. Victorino is a switch-hitter, so he gives the Sox some left-right balance in their lineup. He also has some pop in his bat, hitting 18 homers in 2010 and 17 in 2011. Over parts of nine seasons in the majors, Victorino has posted a career line of .275/.341/.430/.770.
The 32-year-old Victorino is also a talented defensive player who is capable of playing both right field and center at Fenway. That ability provides insurance in case Jacoby Ellsbury is injured again this season, or leaves as a free agent next offseason.
Yet, it's easy to make the argument that the Sox overpaid for Victorino. After all, the Giants retained center fielder Angel Pagan (a similar player) for four years, $40 million this winter.
The Red Sox didn't make a free agent offer beyond three years this winter. And now that Mike Napoli's deal has been reduced to one-year at $5 million, due to concerns about a degenerative hip condition, Victorino received the longest, richest contract of any free agent signed by the Red Sox this winter.
That's something the team may come to regret long before that contract expires.
Wednesday, March 06, 2013
No, it's not quite the same as the Tony Conigliaro tragedy, but the case of Ryan Westmoreland is a very sad tale nonetheless.
"Tony C." became the youngest home run champion in American League history at age 22 and also reached 100 homers faster than any other player in American League history. Then, while still just 22, Conigliaro was hit in the face by a fastball that ruined his eyesight and derailed his brief but brilliant career.
Westmoreland, on the other hand, never even made it to the majors.
The talented Red Sox minor league outfielder, also just 22, announced his retirement from baseball today. With him goes an extraordinary level of hope, hype and promise. Unfortunately, a whole lot of tremendous potential will never be realized.
Westmoreland was selected in the fifth round of the 2008 draft out of Rhode Island’s Portsmouth High School and quickly established himself as the organization's top prospect.
The gifted, young outfielder wasn't just the Red Sox top prospect; Baseball America rated Westmoreland the 21st-best prospect in baseball prior to the 2010 season.
He possessed a unique combination of hitting ability, power, speed, defensive prowess and a strong throwing arm. Yes, Westmoreland was the rare "five-tool" player, destined to be a major league star.
However, Westmoreland's career was derailed by two brain surgeries, one in March 2010 and the next in July 2012.
Far from being able to resume baseball activities, the young man faced the challenge of relearning the most basic of tasks, such as how to walk again and how to tie his shoes. Westmoreland's motor skills and reflexes were devastated by the cavernous malformation that developed in his brain stem and threatened his life.
While the surgery to correct it saved his life, it didn't spare his baseball career.
Westmoreland's dreams of being a major league player were ruined. In the process, the Red Sox lost a player that may have been a cornerstone of their franchise for years to come.
But life is not about baseball. Life is about living. And Westmoreland is indeed alive and otherwise well. Many challenges lie ahead as he seeks to resume the ability to carryout everyday functions that most of us take for granted.
Westmoreland played just one season of minor league baseball. In 2009 with Single-A Lowell, he hit .296/.401/.484/.885 with seven home runs, 35 RBIs and 19 stolen bases in 60 games.
He showed flashes of brilliance that dazzled Red Sox scouts and had the organization eagerly anticipating his arrival to the big league club.
Sadly, that day never arrived and we now know with certainty that it never will. That is truly sad.
Perhaps the most unfortunate thing in any young person's life, aside from a premature death, is the inability to realize one's enormous potential.
Hopefully, Ryan Westmoreland will discover his potential in another aspect of his life. After all, Tony C. went on to become a sports anchor in San Francisco when his baseball career was prematurely ended.
With a little luck and perseverance, perhaps Westmoreland will experience equal success in his post-baseball career. He's certainly got a life ahead of him. After all, he's still just 22-years-old.
Friday, January 18, 2013
In 2011, the Red Sox entered the season under the weight of some mighty expectations. Many baseball observers projected that the team would win 100 games and eventually the World Series. However, the Sox famously flamed out after enduring a 7-20 record in September.
As that 2011 Red Sox team proved, a general manager can build an apparent powerhouse during the offseason, but some teams only look good on paper and never live up to all the hype.
Yet, the 2013 Red Sox will enter this season with low expectations and no hype whatsoever. Though the Red Sox have recently added David Ross, Jonny Gomes, Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew, Ryan Dempster, Koji Uehara, Joel Hanrahan and Mike Napoli, none of them is a true star. Though some are former All Stars, most are considered past their prime (Victorino, Dempster, Uehara) or were never stars at any point in their careers (Ross, Gomes).
Now that the Red Sox have finally gotten the Napoli situation resolved, the team has added eight free agents this offseason, which is as many as they’ve acquired in the John Henry era. The Sox also added eight after the 2004 season. By any measure, the Sox have had a very busy offseason.
Yet, despite all of those additions, it may not be enough to make Boston a playoff contender once again. That's troubling since this is a team that hasn't made the postseason since 2009 and hasn't won a playoff game since 2008.
The most glaring thing about most of the Red Sox offseason acquisitions is their advanced age, which increases the risk of injury. Uehara (38 next season), David Ortiz (37), Ross (36 next season), Dempster (36 next season), Victorino (32) and Napoli (31) are all on the wrong side of 30, as far as baseball is concerned.
This is worrisome because last season, as in 2010, the Red Sox were decimated by injuries. The Sox are assuming the same risks in 2013 by loading up on veteran players in their 30s.
Pre-season predictions are a tough business, but one man has made a career of them.
Famed Red Sox statistician Bill James has some rather uninspiring predictions for the 2013 Red Sox rotation, as far as wins are concerned, at least:
Jon Lester 12-12
Clay Buchholz 12-11
Ryan Dempster 11-10
John Lackey 12-12
Felix Doubront 12-11
As you can see, James envisions just three Sox pitchers breaking .500 this year and none with more than 12 wins. If the Sox are to win as many as 89 games this season, the bullpen will have to come up with a combined 30 victories. That seems far-fetched. If James is right, the Sox are in for another miserable summer.
While none of the above projections is exciting, if you're looking for optimism, James provides some of that too.
The stat guru projects that Lester, Doubront and Lackey will each pitch 200 innings and that Buchholz will reach 190. James also projects a 3.64 ERA for Buchholz, 3.70 for Doubront, 3.71 for Lester, 3.74 ERA Dempster, and 4.05 for Lackey.
If correct, all five starting pitchers would have ERAs lower than the league average.
When it comes to offense, James projections are much more optimistic:
Will Middlebrooks is projected at .277, .806 OPS, 29 HR, 99 RBI.
Dustin Pedroia has a bounce back season, .296/.367/.459, 17 HR, 45 2B.
Jacoby Ellsbury hits .294/.346/.436, 15 HR, 37 SB, 100 R.
David Ortiz projects at .283/.386/.533, 32 HR, 103 RBI
Ryan Lavarnway projects to have a solid rookie season: .261/.335/.435, 16 HR, 66 RBI (115 G)
Mike Napoli projects at .248/.350/.469, 29 HR, 75 RBI, 127 G.
Shane Victorino projects at .269/.338/.418, 14 HR, 29 2B, 7 3B, 29 SB, 85 R.
Jonny Gomes is projected with 16 HR (in 322 AB), .337/.441/.778.
Ryan Kalish projects at 10 HR, 21 SB, .320/.384/.704.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia is projected at 19 HR, .309/.454/.752.
Stephen Drew projects at 11 HR, .325/.411/.736.
That amounts to three 30-ish home run hitters, two 30-base stealers and four players with an OPS of .800 or better. Not bad.
For what it's worth, James has a long history of uncanny predictions. That's why the Red Sox employ him.
But, as the Red Sox know too well, a team's season can be derailed by injuries. The 2012 Red Sox used a franchise-record 56 players, required 42 disabled list transactions, and lost nearly 1,500 total player-games to injury.
The Red Sox had 24 players, 13 of them former All-Stars, go on the disabled list 34 times last season. Since 1987, when records were first kept, no team in baseball used the disabled list more.
That's why depth is so critical. The question is, are the Red Sox deep enough to contend as presently constituted? There's little financial flexibility left to improve the roster.
Peter Abraham reports that $105.275 million came off the Red Sox books by the end of the 2012 season. However, with all of their offseason acquisitions, the resigning of David Ortiz, contract raises for some players, and expected increases for arbitration-eligible players, the Sox have added back $98.66 million.
According to Abraham's calculations, the Sox payroll for 2013 will be just $6.615 million less than it was last season.
In light of all that money spent, the troubling thing is the lack of star power. It's reasonable to question how the Sox can once again approach last year's $176 million payroll without having added any true stars to their roster. The offseason spending also leaves little room to improve the team at the deadline, or in the event of a serious injury to a key player at any point this season.
If Napoli misses time due to his hip condition and is unable to earn all the incentives in his contract, it would give the Sox a few million extra dollars to play with by the trade deadline.
In order for the Red Sox to be competitive this season, all the stars and planets must align. Every one of their regulars will have to play to the top of his ability. That just doesn't seem likely.
The Sox face a litany of questions heading into the 2013 season. Here's a look at some of them:
• Will the Red Sox get the 2008-2010 version of Jon Lester, who was one of the game's best young lefties, or the 2012 Lester, who was a shell of his former self?
More than anything else, perhaps, the Red Sox fortunes may rest on the performance of Lester, who turns 29 on January 7. The lefty entered September 2011 with the highest winning percentage among qualified active pitchers (75-31, .708). However, he's gone 10-17 since then and has fallen to seventh on the list.
This means that Lester went from a career .708 winning percentage to a .639 winning percentage in just one calendar year. If he does not regain his winning ways this season, the Sox won't regain their winning ways either.
Over the last three seasons, Lester’s fastball velocity has dropped from 93.5 to 92.0. Is it mechanical, or is it physical? Somehow Lester and the Sox have to figure it out and get him right.
• Will Clay Buchholz look like the pitcher who went 17-7 with a 2.33 ERA in 2010, or the pitcher who regressed over the last two years, culminating with a 11-8, 4.56 campaign in 2012? Through five big league seasons, Buchholz has never pitched as many as 190 innings. That's got to change this year.
Over the last three seasons, Buchholz’s hits per nine innings have gone from 7.4 to 8.3 to 8.9, while Lester’s have risen from 7.2 to 7.8 to 9.5. Those are troubling trends. New pitching coach Juan Nieves and manager John Farrell will have their work cut out for them.
• Will John Lackey look like the former Angels' ace who once won an ERA title, or the bust he's become in Boston?
• Can Ryan Dempster continually stand up to unfamiliar AL lineups at age 36? How will he fare over a full season against DHs instead of pitchers?
Dempster is 124-124 with a 4.33 ERA in his 15-year career. He has made at least 28 starts and won at least 10 games in each of the last five seasons. That makes him a solid No. 3 starter, and nothing more.
The Red Sox hope he can give them innings, and lots of them. Dempster has pitched at least 200 innings in seven seasons, including four of the last five.
• Will Felix Doubront continue to improve on all the promise he displayed in 2012, or will he regress and suffer a sophomore slump? Doubront made 29 starts last year and threw 161 innings, the most in his pro career. He finished the season 11-10 with a 4.86 ERA. However, he struck out 167 batters in 161 innings while allowing 162 hits, which is pretty impressive.
• Is David Ortiz fully recovered from his Achilles injury, or will it hamper him this year at age 37? Can he be the same powerful presence in the Red Sox lineup as in previous years, or is he finally starting to breakdown?
Recent history is not on his side. Last season was the first in 20 years that not one player aged 37 or older hit at least 20 home runs.
How important is Ortiz to the Red Sox? Consider this: Though he missed all but one of the final 72 games in 2012, Ortiz still ranked second on the Red Sox with 23 homers and tied for fourth with 60 RBI.
• Can Dustin Pedroia stay healthy for an entire season, or will his all-out style of play cost him time on the DL, as it has in two of the last three seasons? The Sox will need the former MVP to be at his best this year.
• Will Jacoby Ellsbury be more like the 2011 MVP runner up, or the star-crossed player who can't remain on the field consistently?
Last year, Ellsbury missed 79 games due to a partially dislocated shoulder. It marked the second season in the last three that Ellsbury missed extensive time due to a serious injury. Ellsbury played in just 18 games in 2010 after colliding with third baseman Adrian Beltre and fracturing his ribs.
• Can second-year man Will Middlebrooks show the same flashes of brilliance he did last year, or will AL pitchers make the necessary adjustments to get him out more often? Can he handle the grind of a full 162-game season?
• With the addition of David Ross, how many games per week will Jarrod Saltalamacchia play? Will he even be with the Sox when they open the season, or will he soon be traded? Salty is 27 and will become a free agent at the end of this season, which diminishes his trade value. Moreover, he batted an anemic .222 last season with a terrible .288 OBP. The big catcher struck out 139 times in just 448 plate appearances in 2012. That's just brutal.
On the other hand, Salty led the Red Sox with 25 home runs, the first catcher to do so since Carlton Fisk had 26 in 1977. Saltalamacchia ranked third among major league catchers in home runs and finished with the fourth-best slugging percentage (.454) among American League catchers (minimum 375 PA).
• Is there a place for Ryan Lavarnway on this team?
• Is Stephen Drew's fractured ankle fully healed? Will he once again be the offensive force he was with Arizona? Due, in part, to that nasty ankle injury, Drew hit just .223/.309/.348 with seven home runs and 28 RBIs in 79 games last season.
However, Drew ranks fourth among all Major League shortstops over the last five seasons with a .441 slugging percentage and fifth with a .770 OPS (min. 1,500 plate appearances).
• Is Shane Victorino still the All Star caliber player he was in 2009 and 2011, or an over-the-hill player with fading bat speed? Victorino hit just .229 against right-handed pitching last season, compared to .323 vs. lefties. From 2006 to 2009, Victorino batted .288; but over the last three seasons his average dropped to just .264. That downward trend is worrisome.
Victorino has a career line of .275/.341/.430/.770 and has stolen at least 30 bases in four of the last six years, including 39 last season. He is also considered an excellent fielder.
• Can Jonny Gomes make up for the loss of fan favorite Cody Ross? Ross batted .267/.326/.481 with 22 home runs, 81 RBI and an .807 OPS in 130 games last season. That's a lot of offense to replace.
Ross was tailor-made for Fenway Park, producing 39 extra-base hits at home in 2012. Only three American League players had more: Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler and Robinson Cano.
In the 100 years of Fenway Park's history, only four players had more extra-base hits in their first season with the Red Sox: Ted Williams, Bill Mueller, Jimmie Foxx and Dick Stuart.
Yet, away from Fenway, Ross hit just .232 with a lowly .684 OPS. Perhaps that's why the Sox weren't inclined to enter into a long term deal with him.
Enter Gomes. Over the course of his career, Gomes has struggled against righties, posting a .223/.307/.425/.732 line. However, he has pounded lefties, posting a .284/.382/.512/.894 line. That seems to make Gomes an ideal platoon candidate with lefty Ryan Kalish.
According to BasseballAnalytics.org, of Gomes' 73 hits in 2012, just five were placed to the right side of the field, with all 18 of his home runs going to left field. Considering the league as a whole hit a combined 1.035 on balls hit to left field at Fenway last season (better than any other placement in the park), that seems to bode well for Gomes in Boston.
However, Gomes is inferior defensively to Ross and is more of a liability versus right-handed pitching.
• What is the condition of Mike Napoli's hip and can he play every day? Napoli has been on the DL five times over the past six seasons, missing a total of 123 games in that span. Napoli topped out at 140 games in 2010, making it the only season in which he's played in more than 115 games. That's worrisome.
Yet, Napoli never missed time due to a hip injury. But it now appears that he has a serious hip condition that may in fact be degenerative. That's why the Sox are so concerned.
With the Rangers last season, Napoli struggled with leg injuries and batted just .227. However, he still posted an .812 OPS and hit 24 homers. And in 2011, Napoli had a breakout year, batting .320/.414/.631/.1.046 with 30 homers and 75 RBI.
Over his seven-year career, Napoli is a .259 hitter with a .356 OBP, a .507 slugging percentage and an .863 OPS. For five straight seasons, he has hit at least 20 homers, peaking at 30 in 2011.
However, Napoli is a weak first baseman and is not strong defensive catcher either. Angels manager Mike Scioscia, a former catcher himself, didn't have confidence in Napoli behind the plate. Consequently, the Angels dealt him following the 2010 season.
The additions of Joel Hanrahan and Koji Uehara, plus the late-2012 emergence of Junichi Tazawa, should greatly improve the Red Sox bullpen this year. Red Sox closers were 35 of 57 (61%) in save opportunities last season. That's why the club acquired Hanrahan from Pittsburgh. The pen should now be an area of strength for the Sox.
More than any time in recent memory, the Red Sox enter the season with a huge number of questions, to which only time will provide answers. If all of the above players thrive this season, the Sox will surprise a lot of people. But if these players have mostly average seasons, or if the Sox are again stricken by injuries, this will likely be a .500 team, at best.
It appears the AL East will be even more competitive than in recent years, so the Red Sox will really have their work cut out for them. Not since 2000 has an AL East team won the division with fewer than 95 wins, or made the playoffs with fewer than 91.
That's the challenging history confronting the 2013 Red Sox. Yes, it's a tall order.
No one is picking this team to contend for a playoff spot. But perhaps the low expectations will serve them well. The only way this team will surprise anyone is if they outperform.
The Red Sox open the regular season on April 1st in New York, against the Yankees.
Thursday, January 10, 2013
While I always admired Schilling as a pitcher, I didn't always admire him as a person. Schilling made himself a lightning rod, never missing an opportunity to look into a TV camera or speak into a microphone, which often led to controversy. Many observers, and even teammates, viewed Schilling as a blowhard and a glory-hound.
But the Hall of Fame is about baseball credentials, not personality.
I was thrilled when the Red Sox traded for Schilling after the 2003 season. I thought he would be the difference-maker for them, and that ultimately proved to be correct. Schilling was an extraordinary competitor and was a proven winner in the post-season.
Schilling's post-season resume is phenomenal. He was every bit as good in the playoffs as Sandy Koufax or Bob Gibson. Schilling has an 11-2 record in the post-season. That's an .846 winning percentage, which is a Major League record among pitchers with at least 10 decisions.
The big righty pitched in five post-seasons and posted a cumulative 2.23 ERA and 0.97 WHIP, that latter of which is phenomenal.
He led three different teams (Phillies, Diamondbacks, Red Sox) to the World Series, pitched in four Fall Classics ('93, '01, '04, '07) and won three titles.
But the post-season, though critical and pressure-packed, is only part of a pitcher's resume. The regular season, which is the bulk of a pitcher's work, carries a lot of weight.
Here are Schilling's primary career stats:
Right off the bat, the stats the jump out and separate him from most of his contemporaries are the strikeouts and the WHIP.
However, Schilling missed the 300-win threshold by a long shot. Naturally, that's long been thought of as a primary criteria for election. For perspective, a pitcher would have to win 15 games a year for 20 straight seasons, or 20 games a year for 15 straight years, to reach 300 — which sounds highly improbable in today's game of six-inning starts, 100-pitch counts, and seven-man bullpens.
Shilling's win total was hurt by the fact that he came up as a reliever with Baltimore in 1988. He was just 21 when he arrived in the majors, but over his first four seasons he made a total of just five starts. It wasn't until his fifth season that he became a full-time starter. That really hurt his career win total. Assuming he had averaged 10 wins over those four seasons, which isn't outrageous considering his subsequent accomplishments, he would have tacked on 40 wins to his career total. Finishing with 256 career wins would have made a better case for his inclusion in the Hall.
Schilling essentially won 60 percent of his starts, finishing with a career winning percentage of .597, which is 117th all-time. Considering the huge number of pitchers who have played in the majors over the past 100-plus years, that's impressive. But it's not outstanding.
The strength of the argument for Schilling is that he broke 3,000 Ks, something that only 16 pitchers in Major League history have accomplished. That's why it has long been a historic criteria for election. Schilling is 15th all time in strikeouts and even had three seasons in which he exceeded 300 Ks, which sounds just unbelievable. These days, a guy can lead the league with 230 to 240 Ks. The other side of the coin is that Schilling had just five 200-plus strikeout seasons in his career.
Another stat that bolsters Schilling's case is that he walked just 711 batters during his career, leading to a career strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.38. That is second all-time (to someone I've never heard of named Tommy Bond, who posted an amazing 5.03) and ahead of Pedro Martinez, who came in at 4.15. That ratio is really impressive. Schilling wasn't just a hurler with a blazing fastball. He was a control pitcher who could put the ball wherever he, or the catcher, wanted.
It's worth noting that Schilling's career WHIP (walks, plus hits, per nine innings) is 1.14, which is the 46th best percentage in history. Schilling's mark is ahead of such Hall of Famers as Tom Seaver, Fergie Jenkins, Don Sutton and Don Drysdale, the player Schilling is most often compared to historically.
For those who insist that wins are the major criteria for a pitcher, 216 may never be enough. Yet, there are many baseball fans and analysts who are dubious of guys who hung around for years, with less than stellar careers, just to get to 300. Guys like Phil Niekro (24 seasons), Don Sutton (23 seasons) and Gaylord Perry (22 seasons) have all been accused of this. Sutton was a 20-game winner just once, Niekro just three times, and Perry five times.
For his part, Schilling won 20 games just twice, and both times he led the league.
Some guys have "what if" careers that are marred by injuries. Fans are left to wonder how good they could have been and what would have become of their careers, if only they'd stayed healthy. But staying healthy is part of the game. You can only have longevity if you remain healthy. Some of that is luck, some is genetic, some is a product of taking care of one's self, and some is a result of not being reckless.
Schilling's career win total wasn't held back so much by injury as by GMs and managers in Baltimore and Houston who kept him in the bullpen for four years at the start of his career. Perhaps he was just a late bloomer. But if he'd been put into the rotation sooner, his career numbers would have all been even better. Schilling threw 226.1 innings in his first year as a full-time starter ('92). Clearly, he was a horse just raring to get out of the gate.
Schilling seems like a borderline candidate to many observers. Induction to the Hall is supposed to be reserved for the best of the best, the cream of the crop. So, the question is, how does Schilling compare with current members of he Hall?
At present, there are 61 former Major League pitchers in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Every eligible pitcher with 300 wins or 3,000 Ks since 1900 has eventually been voted into Cooperstown.
While Schilling's 3.46 career ERA isn't remarkable in any way, it is better than eight members of the Hall of Fame. And while 216 wins doesn't, at first glance, seem all that impressive, there are 19 pitchers in the Hall with fewer wins than Schilling. Most of them are players from long ago eras you've likely never heard of (i.e., Chief Bender, Jack Chesbro, Stan Covelski, etc.).
As Joe Posnanski noted on his blog, there are 31 pitchers in the Hall of Fame who were born in 1900 or earlier. There are also 31 pitchers in the Hall of Fame who were born after 1900. Joe makes the following cogent point:
"Men who pitched mostly before the end of Deadball in 1920 are overrepresented in the Hall of Fame. Before 1920, teams hit many fewer home runs and scored many fewer runs ... so ERAs were low. Pitchers started every third of fourth day, and they tended to pitch deep into games ... so win totals were high."
There are 24 pitchers in the 300-win club; 10 of them won their 300th game in 1920 or earlier. The "Deadball Era" is typically viewed as 1900 to 1919. This means that 42 percent of the pitchers with 300 wins pitched in either the Deadball Era or prior to the "modern era," which began in 1900.
The point is, over the years it has become increasingly improbable that a pitcher will win 300 games over the course of his career. Many baseball people think that Randy Johnson, who accomplished the feat in 2009, may be the last of his kind.
Most critically, wins can be a misleading stat for a pitcher because they are a team stat. Playing on a great team with a stingy defense and a potent offense really benefits a pitcher, while the opposite is a detriment to a pitcher's win total.
Lots of players get game-winning hits, but no one credits them with the win. While game-winning hits may be tallied somewhere, for some reason they aren't viewed as important as a pitcher's win total. And fielders who make game-saving defensive plays aren't credited with wins either.
Simply put, a win is a team effort and a team stat. Despite this, wins are still credited to pitchers and goalies.
Among Schilling's career accomplishments: he was a six-time All Star, a three-time World Series Champion, the 2001 World Series MVP and the 1993 NLCS MVP.
Schilling also led the league in strikeout-to-walk ratio five times, complete games four times, starts three times, wins two times, innings twice, strikeouts twice, batters faced twice, WHIP twice, fewest walks-per-nine innings twice, win/loss percentage once, home runs allowed once and hits-per-nine innings once. Importantly, all of those achievements were spread out over a 15-year span of high productivity, not a five to 10-year span.
What makes Schilling's accomplishments most impressive, perhaps, is that he achieved it all in the 'steroids era' and was never linked to PEDs in any way. In other words, he did cleanly.
Schilling did have the benefit of longevity that came with a 20-year career. However, he pitched in a total of just nine games over his first two seasons in the majors. If Schilling's exploits are viewed in the context of his 15-year peak, perhaps it would make those accomplishments more impressive to his doubters and detractors.
Schilling was one of the better pitchers of his time, but was he dominant? Well, he never won a Cy Young Award, but he did have four top-five finishes. He never won an ERA title either, but he finished second twice and fourth once.
Many of us see the Hall of Fame as a shrine to elite players, not merely very good ones. Yet, when one reviews the list of pitchers in the Hall (a group that exceeds all other positions by nearly 3-to-1), there are a number who don't appear elite, or as if they even belong. That can lead to problems, in which candidates are pushed for induction because they are as good as the lowest caliber players already in Cooperstown.
I must say I began my research into Curt Schilling's career as a doubter. I didn't think he merited induction to the Hall. But after careful analysis, I think he merits stronger consideration.
The case for Schilling: 3,000 career strikeouts; 1.14 WHIP; second best strikeout-to-walk ratio of all time; best post-season winning percentage of all time; four World Series and three titles.
The case against Schilling: no Cy Young Award, wasn't dominant enough in his era, 216 wins (better than 31% of pitchers in HOF), 3.46 ERA (better than 13% of pitcher in HOF).
Schilling is not amongst the very elite pitchers who have ever played the game. But he is certainly every bit as good as many who are already in the Hall, and even better than a number of others enshrined there.
If that is the ultimate criteria, then Curt Schilling should certainly be a Hall of Famer.
Monday, December 24, 2012
This year's Hall of Fame ballot is littered with the names of first-time eligible players who have, rather infamously, been associated with steroids and human growth hormone (HGH) and, in some instances, even been implicated in their use. For example, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa are all on this year's ballot.
Bonds' and Clemens' names were all over the Mitchell Report. In fact, Bonds was mentioned a whopping 103 times (second to Jose Canseco, at 105 mentions) and Clemens was mentioned 82 times.
I've previously detailed the case against Clemens and there is ample evidence to prove that he was a cheater who used performance enhancing drugs (PEDs).
As for Bonds, there is equally compelling evidence against him.
Unsealed court documents show that Bonds tested positive for three types of steroids, and his personal trainer once told his business manager in the San Francisco Giants' clubhouse how he injected the slugger with performance-enhancing drugs "all over the place."
The documents reveal a secretly tape-recorded a 2003 conversation between Bonds' trainer Greg Anderson and Steve Hoskins, Bonds' childhood friend and personal assistant, in the Giants' clubhouse. Anderson and Hoskins were discussing steroid injections when Anderson stated that he moved Bonds injections "all over the place" in order to avoid complications.
During that conversation, Anderson also told Hoskins that "everything that I've been doing at this point, it's all undetectable," according to the documents. "See, the stuff that I have ... we created it. And you can't, you can't buy it anywhere. You can't get it anywhere else."
Also among the evidence made public were doping calendars used by Anderson with the initials "BB" and a handwritten note seized from his house labeled "Barry" that appears to be a laundry list of steroids and planned blood tests.
Bonds use of HGH was so prevalent that his head and feet actually grew during his time with the San Francisco Giants — while he was in his 30s. Bonds' statistics also took off in that period. In unprecedented fashion, Bonds became an extraordinary player in his late 30s and early 40's, well past the prime of all other historic players, a time when all others are in decline.
Sosa, who hit 609 career homers, was one of 104 players who tested positive for a PED in 2003. Beyond that, a cursory look at his career numbers reveals a one-dimensional hitter who does not belong in the Hall of Fame.
Rafael Palmeiro is on the ballot for the third time. In 2005, Palmeiro famously wagged his finger at Congress and intoned that, despite Jose Canseco's published claims, he had never used steroids. Less than five months later, however, he was suspended after test results showed presence of a steroid in his urine.
Mark McGwire is on the ballot for the seventh time. In January of 2010, McGwire finally admitted that he used performance-enhancing drugs (including steroids and human growth hormone) off and on for nearly a decade. That sealed his fate, as far as the Hall of Fame is concerned.
McGwire is the test case for all of the other PED users on this year's ballot, and in the years to come. The slugger has never received more than 23.7 percent of the vote, while 75 percent is needed for enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.
To his credit, McGwire said he wouldn't vote for himself for the Hall of Fame and also said that he doesn't expect to ever get into the Hall. He has continually shown more humility and honesty than any of the other players listed above. Yet, it's still not enough. If "good guy" McGwire is excluded, so are Bonds, Clemens and Sosa.
Some people mistakenly argue that steroids weren't banned in baseball until 2003 and, therefore, players who used them prior to that time should be excused and granted consideration for the Hall of Fame, provided that their career numbers warrant it.
The truth is, the use of steroids for performance enhancement has been implicitly banned by baseball since 1971 and expressly banned since '91.
Beginning in 1971 and continuing today, Major League Baseball's drug policy has prohibited the use of any prescription medication without a valid prescription.
Baseball's first written drug policy was issued by commissioner Bowie Kuhn at the start of the '71 season. The policy did not explicitly address anabolic steroids, but it did say that baseball personnel must "comply with federal and state drug laws." Federal law at the time mandated that an appropriate prescription be obtained for the use of anabolic steroids.
In 1991, Commissioner Fay Vincent first expressly included steroids in baseball's drug policy. Steroids have been listed as a prohibited substance under the Major League Baseball drug policy since that time.
The following is excerpted from Commissioner Vincent's memo on June 7, 1991, which spelled out a broader drug policy and directly prohibited the use of steroids without a valid prescription. Each team and the players' union received the memo.
"This memorandum sets forth Baseball's drug policy... The possession, sale or use of any illegal drug or controlled substance by Major League players or personnel is strictly prohibited.... This prohibition applies to all illegal drugs and controlled substances, including steroids or prescription drugs for which the individual in possession of the drug does not have a prescription."
Absent a prescription, steroids and human growth hormone have always been illegal under U.S. law. Even if Major League Baseball hadn't expressly forbidden their use — which it clearly did — those drugs would still be legally forbidden.
Cheaters shouldn't be rewarded for cheating. Putting any of the above players in the Hall of Fame would set a horrible precedent. It would be a disgrace that would irreparably damage the integrity of the game. Cheating should never be condoned or overlooked.
Clemens and Bonds each had exemplary careers before they began their PED usage. But they are both cheaters nonetheless. Both achieved freakish results late in their careers, when all of their peers and predecessor were in decline. Neither player, both of whom were remarkably competitive, could accept a decline in performance and they wouldn't tolerate being second best.
Character and integrity are explicitly listed as criteria when measuring Hall of Fame merit, and neither player had them.
Voting for the Hall of Fame is being conducted by the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA). The results will be announced on January 9, 2013.
Thursday, December 13, 2012
Of all the Red Sox needs this season (first base, left and right fields), none was more critical than obtaining a reliable starting pitcher. The Sox need someone who can go deep into games and give them at least 200 innings per season. With that in mind, they may have found their guy.
The Red Sox have agreed to terms with Ryan Dempster on a two-year, $26.5 million contract. The righthander has been a solid No. 2 or No. 3 starter through much of his career, posting a 3.74 ERA and 911 strikeouts in 997 innings over the past three seasons, including a 3.38 ERA in 173 total innings this year.
Dempster came up with the Marlins and spent the first four-and-a-half years of his career in Miami.
In July 2002, he was shipped to Cincinnati. But after making just 20 starts for the Reds in 2003, Dempster underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery on his right elbow that August.
After his release by the Reds, the free agent joined the Cubs before the 2004 season and found success there for the better part of nine seasons.
From 2000 to 2002, Dempster threw more than 200 innings per season. But there were struggles along the way; he led the NL with a whopping 112 walks in 2001 and 125 earned runs in 2002.
Despite his propensity to eat innings, those struggles (and the reconstructed elbow) persuaded the Cubs to shift the righty to the bullpen, where he spent the next four years in Chicago.
The move worked out well; from 2005 to 2007, Dempster finished at least 50 games per season for the Cubs, leading the NL with 64 games finished in 2006.
Notwithstanding his success as a reliever, the Cubs converted Dempster back to a starter in 2008 and he proceeded to rack up at least 200 innings in each of the next four seasons.
In 2012, spilt between the Cubs and Rangers, Dempster tossed a combined 173 innings, marking the first time he failed to reach 200 in five seasons.
Yet, over that five-year span, he still averaged 199 innings per year.
The reason for the innings dip was because Dempster spent time on the disabled list twice last season; he missed time early in the season with a strained right quadriceps, and was sidelined for 19 games in mid-June with a strained lat muscle.
Over the last five seasons, Dempster posted ERAs of 2.96 ('08), 3.65 ('09), 3.85 ('10), 4.80 ('11) and 3.38 ('12). That's a five-year average of 3.73. Though 2011 was an off year in terms of ERA, Dempster still led the NL with 34 starts that season.
There is some reason for concern for the Red Sox, and they surely took everything into account. Though Dempster posted a nifty 2.25 ERA for the Cubs last season — which made him a hot commodity at the trade deadline — he proceeded to get knocked around by AL lineups upon joining the Rangers.
Dempster's ERA more than doubled to 5.09 when he arrived in the American League. The Angels (three times), Yankees and A's all pounded Dempster last season. The righty surrendered 39 runs in 69 innings as a Ranger, including 10 home runs.
Despite his struggles against AL clubs, Dempster still wound up with 70 strikeouts in 69 innings with the Rangers, and his 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings with Texas were the most of his big league career.
However, Dempster's fastball velocity has been dropping consistently for three years. Last year, his fastball averaged 89.7 mph, down from 90.3 in 2011 and 91 in 2010. Prior to that, he had regularly been throwing in the 91-92 mph range.
Yet, as he's aged, Dempster has learned to pitch more than just throw, incorporating a split-fingered fastball and a cutter into his repertoire in recent years.
Last season, Dempster had a career-best 2.7 walks per nine innings. This is indicative of a pitcher with good control who shouldn't issue a lot of free passes.
Dempster will be 36 on May 3, meaning he will pitch the duration of this pact on the other side of 35. That's why the Sox were so determined to have him under contract for just two years.
To be clear, Dempster is not a game-changer. Though he is a two-time All Star (2000, 2008), he is not a star or a stud. Hopefully, he will give the Sox at least 30 starts, and eat at least 200 innings, in each of the next two seasons. But it should be remembered that Dempster has a 4.33 career ERA and 1.43 WHIP. All expectations should be modest.
If you're looking for more upside, there's this: Dempster has posted at least 170 innings and at least 7.7 K/9 innings in each of the last five years. The only other pitchers to do that were Tim Lincecum, Felix Hernandez and Cole Hamels. That’s pretty good company.
Because he was traded mid-season in 2012, Dempter will not cost the Red Sox a draft pick, which was a major consideration in this signing. That's a bonus. The Red Sox have not had to part with any of their prized prospects this offseason, which will benefit them in coming years.
Dempster is also a good clubhouse guy, known for being really playful and fun. He's quite the jokester; if you've ever seen/heard his fantastic Harry Caray impression, you know what I mean. It's spot on.
Dempster will keep things loose in the Red Sox clubhouse and dugout. He's a high character guy and, along with the likes of Jonny Gomes and Shane Victorino, should have a positive impact on the culture of baseball in Boston.
Monday, December 03, 2012
The Red Sox are widely reported to have interest in free agent outfielders Cody Ross and Nick Swisher. To follow is an analysis of both players, based on games/dependability, offense, defense, personality/character and price.
The 31-year-old Ross, of course, played on a one-year, $3 million contract for the Sox last season. He performed quite well, posting a .267/.326/.481/.807 line, to go along with 22 homers and 81 RBI.
The 32-year-old Swisher wrapped-up a five-year contract last season, playing out a club option with the Yankees for $10.25 million. He had another terrific season, posting a .272/.364/.473/.837 line, to go along with 24 homers and 93 RBI.
Ross became an everyday player in 2006, Swisher in 2005. So we'll compare the two since the 2006 season.
Since that time, Ross has averaged 124 games per season, peaking at 153 in 2010 after 151 in 2009.
Since 2006, Swisher has averaged 151 games per season, going six straight years playing in at least 150, before dropping to 148 last season.
Ross has a career line of .262/.324/.460/.783, with 122 homers, 186 doubles and 452 RBI.
Swisher has a career line of .256/.361/.467/.828, with 209 homers, 251 doubles and 672 RBI.
Ross, career against righties: .253/.312/.415/.727, 64 HR, 278 RBI
Ross, career against lefties: .284/.353/.575/.928, 58 HR, 174 RBI
Swisher, career against righties: .250/.342/.478/.820, 162 HR, 502 RBI
Swisher, career against lefties: .270/.402/.441/.842, 47 HR, 171 RBI
Swisher is switch-hitter.
Ross can play all three outfield positions and is a solid defender.
Swisher can play left and right field, but is not a great defender. He can also play first base.
Advantage: Ross in the outfield; Swisher for his infield/outfield versatility.
Both players are known as great clubhouse guys with positive, outgoing personalities. Ross endeared himself to Red Sox fans last season with his ready smile and amiable charm. Swisher is a similar sort of guy.
"I think he brought a lot to the Yankees as far as just a free spirit, a little bit of an edge," said ESPN's Tim Kurkjian of Swisher. "And I think he would be good in Boston. I think he would be good in the clubhouse. If I were the Red Sox I would look long and hard at him... I think he's very much on the radar there for the Red Sox, and I think he should be."
Ross wants a three-year, $24 million deal.
Swisher is looking for a five- or six-year deal. But odds are that he’ll have to settle for four, perhaps at the same $13 million per year that Napoli just got from the Red Sox.
The addition of Swisher would give the Red Sox even more flexibility after adding catcher-first baseman Mike Napoli. Napoli will likely play first base most of the time, but when he catches, Swisher could move to first, which is probably his best position. Swisher would presumably start in right field the rest of the time. That flexibility also works in Swisher's favor.
The Red Sox have plenty of money to play with this winter. The cost of each player is not prohibitive. If money is not a concern, then Swisher seems to be the better choice, largely because of his durability, consistency, greater offensive production, his switch-hitting ability and his capacity to play both corner outfield spots, as well as first base. If Swisher could handle playing in New York, there is little doubt that he can also handle the Boston market.
The advantage of Ross is that he will cost less and be under contract for a shorter term. He is also a better outfielder. Most importantly, perhaps, the Sox know exactly what they have and what they'll be getting with Ross because he spent last season with the team.
The case for Ross is also made stronger by the fact that signing Swisher would cost the Sox their second-round pick (around 40th - 45th) next year. Such compensation is required because Swisher rejected the Yankees one-year qualifying offer. The Red Sox top-ten, first-round pick is protected, however.
The Sox really can't go wrong here. Should they end up with either player, they will be well-served because of it.
The shame is that the Sox won't end up with both Ross and Swisher. The team has the financial capacity to sign both players to fill their corner outfield spots. Instead, they gave Jonny Gomes a two-year, $10 million deal. That seems like an inferior choice and a poor decision.
Who would you rather have — Ross or Swisher?
Saturday, November 03, 2012
I still have vivid memories of the 1986 World Series between the Red Sox and Mets and, like most Red Sox fans, was stricken with years of angst by the outcome. I was watching Game 6 live, in disbelief, as that ball infamously rolled between Bill Buckner's legs.
Until the Red Sox finally won the World Series in 2004, I was never able to re-watch and re-live Buckner's gaffe. It was too painful to view again. Once was more than enough. I'd avert my eyes, change the channel, or walk out of the room, if necessary. But the 2004 victory served as a sort of psychic balm that healed all wounds of Red Sox past.
So, I recently went back and re-examined that notorious Game 6 and was reminded that the Red Sox epic loss was due to a series of cumulative mistakes, not just Buckner's legendary error.
The evidence is abundantly clear: Buckner was by no means the only Boston player at fault for the team's historic meltdown. His mistake is just the most famous and, ultimately, the only one that seems to be remembered after all these years. But that is a rather selective memory.
Another thing that's often forgotten is that Buckner's error, and the Red Sox momentous implosion that October evening, didn't decide the World Series. It was only Game 6, not Game 7. The Sox still had another chance, two nights later, to become Champions. But they couldn't overcome the Mets that night either.
The fabled ball hit to Buckner down the first base side took two hops and then simply rolled beneath his glove. It wasn't a bad hop or a difficult play. It was a rather routine ground ball. Buckner simply made a devastating miscue.
Twelve days before the World Series began, Buckner seemed to have a premonition of what was to come. In a televised interview, Buckner said, "The dreams are that you're gonna have a great series and win. And the nightmares are that you're gonna let the winning run score on a ground ball through your legs."
Honestly. He actually said that to a reporter on camera and the video still exists.
The Red Sox held a 5-3 lead over the Mets in the bottom of the 10th inning of Game 6, and a 3-2 Series lead. Sox closer Calvin Schiraldi recorded two quick outs (fly balls to Wally Backman and Keith Hernandez), leaving Boston just one out away from its first World Series title since 1918.
In the intervening years, the Sox had lost three heartbreaking seven-game World Series' — to the Cardinals in 1946 and 1967, and to the Red in 1975.
Schiraldi was in his third inning of work that fateful evening, something to which he was entirely unaccustomed.
Buckner was also left in the game in lieu of his usual late-inning defensive replacement, Dave Stapleton. Buckner was stricken by gimpy ankles that limited his mobility. In fact, Buckner was the first major league player to wear Nike high-top baseball cleats during games in order to relieve the stress on his ankles.
But, given Buckner's many invaluable contributions throughout that season, Sox manager John McNamara wanted the veteran to be on the field for the final out. It seemed a fitting and well-earned tribute at the time.
By the second out of the ninth inning, Bob Costas and the NBC camera crew were already set up in the visitors' clubhouse at Shea Stadium. The entire Red Sox clubhouse had been covered with plastic in preparation for the champagne and beer-soaked celebration that would shortly ensue.
The Championship trophy was even rolled into the Sox clubhouse.
But fate would quickly intervene.
With two outs and the bases empty, Gary Carter punched a single into left field. At that moment, the left field score board briefly flashed, "Congratulations to the 1986 World Champion Boston Red Sox."
But that message proved to be quite presumptuous.
The next hitter, backup infielder Kevin Mitchell, lined a pinch-hit single into center. Now there were two men on base, one in scoring position. That brought third baseman Ray Knight to the plate for the Mets.
Schiraldi got two strikes on Knight, leaving the Red Sox one strike away from the cherished World Series Championship that Boston had long been dreaming of. But on the third pitch of the at-bat, Knight swatted the Mets' third consecutive single of the inning, driving in Carter from second and advancing Mitchell to third. The tying run was now just 60-feet away for the Mets.
With the Red Sox clinging to a scant one-run lead, McNamarra made a call to the bullpen. The Sox skipper chose to replace his faltering closer with veteran Bob Stanley, the man Schiraldi had supplanted in that role late in the season.
Meanwhile, the champagne was being readied inside the Red Sox clubhouse. All of MLB's celebratory preparations were well underway.
Mookie Wilson strode to the plate for the Mets with the tying run on third and the winning run on first. Stanley was able to get two strikes on Wilson and once again the Sox were just one strike away from victory. Wilson fouled off a series of pitches, working the count to 2-2. On the seventh pitch of the at-bat, Stanley uncorked a wild pitch that nearly hit Wilson, allowing Mitchell to score the tying run and advancing Knight to second.
League officials quickly removed the champagne and the Championship trophy from the Red Sox clubhouse, while all the plastic was pulled down from the walls and surrounding lockers. Costas stayed behind with just a skeleton crew from NBC.
Somehow, Stanley's blunder is often forgotten. But it was Stanley that blew the Sox precious lead. Until that moment, the Sox were ahead. Even if Boston were to record another out that inning, it would only assure them of getting into the 11th inning and nothing more. The game could no longer be won in the 10th... by the Sox.
Wilson stepped back into the batter's box and worked the count full. On the tenth pitch of the at-bat, he hit a slow ground ball along the first base side. Buckner scrambled to his left and into position to make what appeared to be a routine, inning-ending play. But it was not to be.
The ebullient Knight scored the game-winning run and the Mets astonishingly seized victory from the jaws of defeat.
Vin Scully's call of the play would become iconic to sports fans.
"So the winning run is at second base, with two outs, three and two to Mookie Wilson. (A) little roller up along first... behind the bag! It gets through Buckner! Here comes Knight, and the Mets win it!"
Scully then remained silent for more than three minutes, letting the pictures and the crowd noise tell the story.
Meanwhile, the NBC camera crew scrambled to break down their equipment and pull all of the TV and audio cables out of the Red Sox clubhouse as quickly as possible.
Four times in that final inning, the Mets were down to their last strike. Yet, the Red Sox couldn't close the deal.
Somehow, Buckner came to singularly symbolize the Red Sox epic failure. Stanley escaped relatively free and unscathed from the dark annals of Red Sox history, as well as from the ire of a legion of Red Sox of fans.
No one seems to remember that it was Stanley's wild pitch that cost the Red Sox their lead. And no one seems to remember that Schiraldi gave up three consecutive two-out singles — allowing a run and putting the tying run on third — rather than closing out the game.
Only Buckner's blunder is remembered after all these years.
Red Sox right fielder Dwight Evans says that after the game, none of the Red Sox players blamed Buckner for the loss or thought it was his fault.
But the fans and the media saw things differently. They needed a scapegoat and a whipping boy. Buckner became both.
The next night's scheduled contest, Game 7, was rained out, leaving Red Sox fans to stew and grow ever more despondent. Losing seemed to be the Red Sox destiny and the team's perpetual bad luck was playing itself out once again on national television. What felt like drama to baseball fans around the nation felt like a kick in the gut to Sox fans.
The Sox would stake out a 3-0 lead through six innings in Game 7, only to lose in heartbreaking fashion by a score of 8-5. Once again, Knight was the Mets' hero, hitting the tie-breaking home run in the seventh.
Knight batted .391 with five RBIs and was awarded the World Series MVP for his efforts. He also won the Baseball Writers Association of America's Babe Ruth Award for the best performance in the World Series.
Mets fans were over the moon with joy, reveling in the team's first World Series title since 1969.
Boston fans, on the other hand, were in mourning. The Red Sox were so close to that elusive Championship — one strike away on four separate occasions — and yet went down in defeat in seven games once again, just as they had in '46, '67 and '75. It had become a loathsome trend of customary despair.
By that time, pleas of "Wait until next year" had grown oh so trite. The Sox did indeed appear cursed. And Buckner seemed to epitomize that supposed hex.
What's often forgotten is how great a baseball player Buckner was throughout his long career and how significant his contributions were to the Red Sox from 1984 to 1987.
When Buckner finally ended his career, he had won a batting title (1980) and had more hits (2,715) than legends Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio. He also batted at least .300 in seven seasons.
Yet, all that's remembered is that damn ground ball in Game 6.
The Red Sox acquired Buckner from the Cubs for Dennis Eckersley and Mike Brumley on May 25, 1984. The Red Sox were 19–25, and in sixth place in the American League East at the time of the trade. However, after obtaining Buckner the Sox improved to 67–51 the rest of the way and finished the season in fourth. Buckner invigorated a lackluster Sox squad with some offensive firepower and the will to win.
Buckner appeared in all 162 games for the Red Sox in 1985, batting .299 with 16 home runs and a career high 110 RBIs in the number two spot in Boston's line-up. Buckner was a prototypical contact hitter, and struck out just 36 times in 718 plate appearances to lead the league in that category.
Buckner also led the league in most at-bats per strikeout in '86 and was second in '87. Additionally, Buckner drove in over 100 runs in both '85 and '86.
But after the '86 World Series, Buckner was heckled and booed by his own home fans and even began receiving death threats.
Given all that, it's rather amazing that the Sox had Buckner back in '87 and that he was even willing to return. However, their association didn't last long; the Red Sox released Buckner on July 23, despite the fact that he was batting .273 with two home runs and 42 RBI through 95 games.
Buckner went on to play for the Angels and the Royals from '87 through '89. However, he eventually returned to Boston as a free agent in 1990 for 22 games. Buckner received a standing ovation from the crowd during player introductions at the home opener on April 9. However, the reunion was short-lived; the veteran retired on June 5 after batting just .186 with one home run and three RBI.
Most remarkable of all, perhaps, was that Buckner and his family lived in Boston until 1993, at which point they finally moved away for good. Buckner's wife couldn't stand the heckling and jeering directed toward her husband whenever they were out in public.
Ultimately, after a fantastic 21-year career, Buckner deserves to be remembered for a lot more than a single error. But sadly, just one play stands out in his illustrious career.
A wonderful healing moment finally occurred for Buckner when he returned to Fenway Park to throw out the first pitch to former teammate Dwight Evans at the home opener on April 8, 2008. The game was a celebratory event, with the Red Sox unfurling their 2007 World Series Championship banner.
Buckner received a four-minute standing ovation from the sell-out crowd. It was a beautiful experience for everyone. Buckner was visibly moved and genuinely appreciative of the reception he received. At long last, it seemed that he was finally forgiven by Red Sox fans.
Such an occasion was well-deserved and long overdue. Bill Buckner should be remembered for a lot more than just one error.
Bob Stanley, on the other hand... well that's another story.
Saturday, September 01, 2012
Ellsbury stole 50 bases in 2008 and followed that by stealing 70 bags and batting .301 in 2009. Ellsbury looked like a star in the making before his 2010 season was derailed by a collision with teammate Adrian Beltre that broke the center fielder's ribs. Ellsbury was limited to just 18 games that season.
But Ellsbury returned to have a truly breakout season in 2011, batting .321 with 212 hits, 46 doubles, 32 homers, 105 RBI, 119 runs and 39 stolen bases. As a result, he finished second in the MVP voting.
Everyone in baseball was eager to see how Ellsbury would follow up such a breathtaking performance. But after suffering a dislocated shoulder just one week into this season, he was sidelined once again, this time for three months. Again, it was a collision — of sorts — that resulted in Ellsbury's injury, as Rays shortstop Reid Brignac’s knee came down on Ellsbury's shoulder at second base.
Since returning, Ellsbury's performance has been lackluster, at best. In 53 games, Ellsbury is batting just .267 with a .310 OBP — hardly All Star numbers. To make matters worse, Ellsbury has also suffered a power outage, hitting just two homers and knocking in only 16 RBI. At this pace, Ellsbury would compile just 240 total bases over the course of a full season, after posting a league-best 364 last year.
Ellsbury's stunning 2011 performance bears no resemblance to any other season of his career, which is a reason for concern. Ellsbury hit 32 home runs last, year, yet has combined for just 22 homers in parts of six other Major League seasons. In fact, Ellsbury has never even reached double digits in home runs in any other season, and his next highest RBI total is 60. Does one breakout season in six years make a player a bona fide middle-of-the-order hitter?
So just what is Ellsbury's value? That may be hard to determine in the absence of multiple bidders. Yet, the Red Sox surely don't want it to go that route. They have internally established their center fielder's value and won't enter a bidding war to retain his services.
Even before his poor 2011 season and injury-riddled 2012 campaign, Carl Crawford, a similar player to Ellsbury, was never worth $21 million annually. The Red Sox made a huge mistake with that contract and are grateful that the Dodgers took the overpriced Crawford off their hands. Most baseball insiders assume that Crawford's pact will be agent Scott Boras' benchmark in the Ellsbury negotiations.
Long term deals are often looked back upon with regret, at least by the teams that made them. So, with 22-year-old Jackie Bradley Jr. in the pipeline, and likely ready for the big league in 2014, will the Red Sox feel compelled to go all in for Ellsbury?
Bradley has never played a game above Double-A and is still just a prospect. Plenty of minor leaguers have seemed like can't miss kids, until they missed. It happens all the time. Additionally, the next two free agent classes of center fielders are very thin.
The Sox won't touch Josh hamilton, who is 32, injury prone and has substance abuse issues. Curtis Granderson will be in Elllsbury's free agent class, but does anyone believe the Yankees will lose one of their own highly-coveted players? Have the Yankees ever been out-bid?
One thing is for sure, Ellsbury won't come cheaply. The question is if he'll be worth all that money.
Boras says his client is a franchise player and seems determined to let the market determine Ellsbury's value after the 2013 season. Gordon Edes writes that the Red Sox have privately discussed offering Ellsbury a contract extension this winter and plan to at least make an attempt to keep him from hitting the open market next year.
However, given Boras' history of letting the market determine value, it's unlikely he would encourage Ellsbury to sign an extension with Boston this winter.
With that in mind, is it best for the Red Sox to trade their center fielder this offseason, or to keep him and let him play out the 2013 season?
Ellsbury turns 29 on September 11th, and will be 30 when his arbitration eligibility expires after next season. Will the Red Sox engage in a six to eight-year deal with a player of that age, especially after misfiring on a number of long term deals in recent years? After all, Boras will surely be seeking a contract of that length for Ellsbury.
Ellsbury will make $8.05 million this season and arbitration always seems to mandate a raise for players — even when they don't deserve it. So the Red Sox can retain Ellsbury on a reasonable one-year deal, perhaps in the vicinity of $10 million. That's chump change to the Sox, who are suddenly flush with cash.
Keeping Ellsbury around next season could be a wise idea since he will be particularly motivated to increase his value heading into free agency. It's uncanny how many players have career-years leading into free agency.
Additionally, since the Sox just dealt Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, the Sox may need Ellsbury more than ever next season. Without Ellsbury, the Sox offense would take an even more giant leap backward.
However, under baseball's new collective bargaining agreement, teams no longer receive two compensatory draft picks when their top free agents leave; they will now receive just one — as long as they offer a qualifying, guaranteed, one-year contract. The compensatory pick will be sandwiched between the first and second rounds. There are no longer distinctions between Type A and Type B free agents.
That could make Ellsbury less valuable to the Red Sox than he would have been in the past.
A team will have to offer its own free agents the average of the top 125 contracts — currently about $12.4 million — to receive draft-pick compensation if their former player signs with a new team. Given that Boras will be seeking an average annual salary for Ellsbury exceeding that amount, it's a no-brainer that the Sox will make such an offer if Ellsbury is still with the team at the end of next season.
Additionally, only players who have been with their clubs for the entire season will be subject to compensation. This would make Ellsbury particularly attractive and valuable to other teams this winter. If he is traded at the deadline next July, the acquiring team would receive no compensation if Ellsbury left via free agency.
The Red Sox have surely made an internal determination of Ellsbury's value. The key now is to decide which is greater; one more year with Ellsbury in center and the middle or their order, or the return they might get for him in a trade.
The guess here is that there is more to be gained by hanging onto Ellsbury and hoping for another MVP-worthy season in 2013. Yes, Ellsbury's 2011 performance may have been an outlier, the likes of which he'll never repeat. But considering his affordability next year, and the fact that the Red Sox can easily make him a guaranteed qualifying offer for 2014 that would at least secure a sandwich pick in the 2015 draft, it seems to make the most sense to hang onto Ellsbury instead of trading him.
Unless the Mariners are offering Felix Hernandez. In that case, the Red Sox can't act quickly enough to make it happen.
Sunday, August 26, 2012
The Red Sox still have a fine group of young players that will comprise their core for the next few years: Dustin Pedroia, Will Middlebrooks, Ryan Lavarnway, Ryan Kalish, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Felix Doubront, Franklin Morales, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and Andrew Bailey. Perhaps even Jacoby Ellsbury (if the Sox can work out a long term extension with Scott Boras this winter) and Mike Aviles will be a part of that core.
The Sox can only hope that most of their prized prospects (including those acquired from the Dodgers in Friday's epic trade) pan out as projected. But that will require all of the stars and planets to align correctly.
The Red Sox spent $175 million this season and failed miserably. They shouldn’t need a $150 million roster to win a championship. They need motivated, determined players with a fighting spirit, a positive attitude and a commitment to teamwork in order to succeed.
The trade with the Dodgers had to happen, and the Red Sox are quite fortunate that it did. What was the point of having so many high-priced, under-performers on the roster? The Sox can just as easily finish in fourth or fifth place without those players, yet save the enormous associated costs. This team was going nowhere with the players who were traded, and it couldn't possibly rebuild with them on the roster.
So, now that process can begin. But it will take a few years before Boston is once again a competitive team, in my estimation.
Red Sox fans will have to be patient, and I think they will be. I think they'd rather root for a team of young, homegrown talent that tries and fails, rather than the sort of team that let them down this year and last.
The Red Sox will not follow their previous path to failure. Signing lots of high-priced free agents didn't work for them over the past decade and management is well aware of that. Boston won't touch Josh Hamilton. The guy is 32 and has way too many problems.
Going forward, I think the Sox will rely more on trades than free agency. Free agents are invariably older, often on the wrong side of 30, and already have at least six years of major league experience. The Sox would rather trade for younger players in their peak years — the mid-to-late 20's — who are still just arbitration-eligible. Then the organization can sprinkle in the appropriate, prized free agents here and there.
But that rebuilding process will take some time, which is not something that most baseball executives or Red Sox fans could have imagined over most of the past decade.
Though they won two Championships in a four-year span — the last of which was just five years ago — the Red Sox have intermittently experienced off years. However, they've have now endured three of them in succession. The Sox haven't won a playoff game since 2008 and they haven't even made the playoffs since 2009. So, Red Sox fans already know what it feels like when their team underperforms and disappoints.
However, this proves that the Red Sox are not exempt from the ups and downs of the sports cycle. There will indeed be down periods. Only the Yankees seem immune to this and are able to continually reload. That's simply amazing.
The best news for the Red Sox is that they appear to have some good players in the pipeline who are just a couple of years away. And now they also have tremendous financial flexibility, which seemed unimaginable just 72 hours ago.
The front office will improve this team during the offseason, I have no doubt. If there are free agents that fit and make sense in Boston, the Red Sox will pursue them. However, they are not done dealing either. It would hardly be surprising to see Ellsbury traded this winter.
The Red Sox have successfully traded four of the nine players signed to guaranteed contracts beyond 2012. In the process, the Sox unloaded their three biggest contracts, as measured by average annual value. The team has quickly gone from $99.6 million in guaranteed money to just $38.8 million.
That can only be viewed as a positive, and amazing, orchestration by the front office.
If this team is destined for some lost years, better to endure them while rebuilding for the future with homegrown talent, and doing it on the cheap.
That's preferable to watching spoiled millionaires act as if they are entitled to not care, or even make an effort.
Saturday, August 25, 2012
To say that this season hasn't gone the way the Red Sox or their legion of fans had anticipated is an understatement. With a roster full of former All Stars costing $175 million this year alone, the Red Sox woeful 60-66 record and tepid individual performances are monumental disappointments. Burdened by a roster full of entitled underachievers, the Red Sox simply are not a likable club.
The team seems to have just given up and thrown in the towel on an already miserable season.
Going into Friday's contest, the Sox were 6-15 in August. They had lost four straight and 11 of 15. They were 29-37 at Fenway Park this season and had lost nine of their last 11 games there. The once-mighty Red Sox were 16-21 since the All Star break.
Playing sub-.500 baseball has become a way of life for the lackluster Red Sox over the last calendar year.
This club lacks chemistry, heart, desire and will. They are simply an abysmal bunch, given the huge payroll and high expectations.
Boston is on pace to finish with a losing record for the first time since 1997. Considering the high-level talent on the roster and the money committed by ownership, that is simply unacceptable.
However, it seemed that there was nothing the Red Sox could do about their roster until the offseason, at least. Even then, there was a strong chance that they were just stuck with a series of really bad, long-term contracts doled out to disinterested players.
What team in baseball would want Josh Beckett's bad attitude, bad back, dubious shoulder and 90 mph fastball? Who would take the passionless, aimless Carl Crawford and his newly repaired left elbow?
Becket is owed nearly $32 million over the next two seasons and Crawford is owed more than $100 million over the next five. Both players and their contracts seemed virtually unmovable. For guys making so many millions, simply for playing a game, both seemed miserable. Had anyone seen either player smile in the last two years?
The Red Sox appeared stuck.
Then, quite suddenly, along came the Los Angeles Dodgers with an answer to the Red Sox prayers.
Goodbye Beckett. Goodbye Crawford. Goodbye Adrian Gonzalez. And goodbye Nick Punto, a guy known for nothing more than taking up space and destroying his teammates shirts. Thanks for nothing fellas, you're the Dodgers problem now.
In one fell swoop, GM Ben Cherington has put his stamp on this team and freed up roughly $260 million in payroll. Think about that for a moment; that's more than a quarter-of-a-billion dollars. John Henry must be dancing on a table inside his yacht, drinking champagne straight from a magnum.
The fact that Cherington was able to send three absolutely massive contracts to a single team — and only have to kick in about $10 million in the deal — is stunning. The GM's behind-the-scenes machinations can only be viewed as a coup de tat.
Additionally, the Red Sox will be free of Kevin Youkilis' $12 million salary and Daisuke Matsuzaka's $10 million salary at season's end. At that point, the club will finally be rid of virtually all their bad contracts, save for John Lackey's.
Think the Dodgers could again be fooled into taking another Texas Trouble-Maker? After all, Lackey really seemed to love Southern California.
From the Red Sox perspective, this deal with the Dodgers is nothing more than a salary dump. The prospects (Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, Ivan DeJesus and Jerry Sands) are just gravy. One never knows how prospects will pan out. Does anyone remember how good Lars Anderson and Michael Bowden were going to be?
If the two pitchers (Webster and De La Rosa) turn out to be as good as projected, it will only make this salary dump all the better.
Now the Red Sox can go back to focusing on developing homegrown talent. Xander Bogaerts, Bryce Brentz, Matt Barnes and Jackie Bradley Jr. (the Killer B's) are all just a couple of seasons away from the Show.
If you are a Red Sox fan, you have to feel a lot better about this team and this organization today than you did 24 hours ago. And for that, we can all feel grateful
Thank you, Ben Cherington. You are not tone deaf after all. You were really listening to the fans and seeing what the rest of us were seeing.
Now we can go back to rooting for this team again. Better days are surely ahead.
Monday, August 06, 2012
Whether Valentine's job is safe after this season ends is open to much speculation and he may, in fact, be terminated in the fall. The Sox brass gave Valentine a brief window of opportunity when they handed him a two-year deal last winter, which wasn't a vote of confidence.
Perhaps Valentine won't see year-two in Boston, but the Red Sox failures this season cannot be laid at his feet.
Red Sox starters have a cumulative ERA of 4.78, 11th out of 14 AL clubs. Boston's top-three starters — Clay Buchholz, Josh Beckett and Jon Lester — have ERAs of 4.48, 4.54 and 5.36, respectively.
If you're looking for the reason the Red Sox have been a .500 ball club all season, look no further. Yet, there's more.
The feast or famine Red Sox have scored the third-most runs in the major leagues, more than the first-place Yankees. Yet, the Sox have been limited to two or fewer runs 29 times. That's not Bobby Valentine's fault.
A whole host of high-priced veterans that this team was counting on when the season began are all having off years at the same time. But that's not all.
Red Sox players have missed 1,119 games while on the disabled list. That's mind-boggling.
The Sox have set a team record by putting 23 players on the disabled list 27 times this season. The 23 players on the DL are the most in a single season by any team in the majors since 1987.
None of that is Bobby Valentine's fault either.
More than anything, the Red Sox really need a roster overhaul. However, they have a number of overpaid under-achievers bogging down their roster, which are always the hardest players to move.
John Lackey will be back in the rotation next season, in lieu of Aaron Cook. However, all four of the other current starters will almost certainly be back in 2013 as well. That's the same group that isn't getting it done this year.
The Sox appear to be handcuffed to Beckett, which is most unfortunate.
In his seven seasons in Boston, Beckett has produced an ERA under 4.00 just three times. And he has twice had an ERA over 5.00. This is the guy who was supposed to be the staff ace from the very beginning, and whom the Red Sox handed a four-year, $68 million extension before the 2010 season.
Beckett responded by turning in a career-worst 5.78 ERA that year.
Bobby Valentine did not give Josh Beckett that regrettable four-year extension.
Firing the manager would merely be an act of scapegoating. The Red Sox face far bigger, far more important personnel decisions and are saddled with some really bad, long-term contracts that will haunt them for years to come.
John Henry and Co. have a major PR problem on their hands. Fans just don't like this team of high-priced, under-performing veterans.
Ratings on NESN are down and ticket sales are dwindling. Maintaining this phony sellout streak has become a bad joke. Fans arrive late and leave early. Season ticket holders can't resell their seats online. Interest in this team is clearly declining.
If management can't fix the glaring problems it has with its on-field personnel, then perhaps they'll make a clumsy public charade of trying to fix their problems by firing Valentine instead.
But doing that won't address the Red Sox real problems, which are all over their roster.